Of the 190-odd plays gracing the New York stage during the 1922-23 season, Rain by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, R.U.R. by Karel Capek, and Merton of the Movies, a lesser George S. Kaufman-Marc Connelly comedy, are perhaps among the most easily recognizable. Quietly sandwiched between George White's Scandals of 1922 (opening on August 28 with a Gershwin score) and Arthur Goodrich's So This is London (opening on August 30 under George M. Cohan's direction), however, came a rollicking three-act "satirical" work by George Kelly called The Torch-Bearers, now winding down its heady revival by Drama Department.
Directed by Dylan Baker, the script may have received an updating nip and tuck here and there, but the plot remains unchanged. A housewife, Paula Ritter (Faith Prince), is engaged to perform in amateur theatricals by Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli (Marian Seldes), a champion of the "Little Theater" movement with a near-religious fervor for that long-forgotten community-style artform. Paula's husband Fred (David Garrison) returns from a business trip, discovers the pursuit, and at first treats it all rather at a distance, with the kind of supercilious mocking that those unfamiliar with the arts tend to use toward those who pursue the arts as hobby, diversion or vocation. Fred is visibly dismayed when he learns how his wife got the part...when Mrs. Clara Sheppard (Claire Beckman) had to withdraw from Mrs. Pampinelli's work--a powderpuff called "One of Those Things"--after her husband suffered a "fatal heart stroke" upon seeing her act. Clue number one.
Under Mrs. Pampinelli's exquisitely florid direction--much of which the audience is treated to watching during the first act--"One of Those Things" is exactly that. Delicately balancing the comedic potential of this play-within-a-play with prompting along what thin plot there is, Kelly wisely intended his audience to see only enough of the work at hand to realize how dreadful it must be. This, of course, sets up the Noises Off-like setting that occurs backstage during the second act. Weaved throughout is a cornucopia of well-meaning but dotty amateur actors and back-of-house personnel, including Herbert Euclid Spindler III (Albert Macklin), a hapless, helpless and hopeless properties manager, and Nelly Fell (Joan Copeland), a near-sighted, easily-distracted promptress.
The "actors" in Mrs. Pampinelli's exercise are equally ditzy caricatures. In fact, as exacting as Mrs. Pampinelli is--particularly in a performance from Seldes that is a supercharged sonata of endlessly flailing limbs--the players in this noble work continually mess up in spectacular proportion. Huxley Hossefrosse (Don Mayo), Teddy Spearing (Ralph Cole, Jr.), Ralph Twiller (Paul Mullins) and Florence McCrickett (Judith Blazer) all take their roles as seriously as one might expect from a community theater troupe, and "One of Those Things" lives up to its first and last chuckle. Problem is, one wants more than to chuckle, leaving The Torch Bearers, however satirical, a hair less spicy than the stew requires.
Taken in the context of the early '20s, Kelly's parody of the Little Theater movement must have been on-target and elegantly relevant when the play was originally staged. After all, during the week of May 7, 1923--toward the end of the same theater season as The Torch-Bearers--there actually was a Little Theater Tournament right on Broadway, with such groups as The Little Theatre League of Bridgeport, The Huguenot Players of New Rochelle, and The Nyack Club Players presenting such now-forgotten trinkets as The Rut, The Revolt of the Mummies, and The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife--the latter written by Anatole France. (For the record, the festival featured plays by Mark Hellinger, Lawrence Langner, Booth Tarkington, and two notable women writers of the time, Rachel Lyman Field and Alice Gerstenberg. The East-West Players of Manhattan were the winners of the tournament--collecting the David Belasco Trophy for their efforts--and all for their sparkling rendition of the France piece.)
On the bright side, The Torch-Bearers cast, one and all, uphold the Drama Department's remarkable ongoing ability to deliver, from Faith Prince's poker-faced normalism to Seldes' fanatical formalism. If the play should transfer to an open-ended Off-Broadway run--and if producers care a whit about the American theater, it absolutely should--director Baker would be well-advised to improve upon a few missed comedic opportunities. Chief among them involves Macklin, an actor who possesses, in my view, the best all-around comic timing of anyone not currently on Broadway today. In one scene in the middle of the second act, his character thoughtfully unscrews a flat out of the floor so no one scurrying about backstage will trip. Well, no one trips--but the flat, surely, should fall. It doesn't fall, although it threatens to--once. The lesson is as classic as Kelly's satire: unfired guns on stage never work and neither do unfalling flats. In fact, if the flat could fall, or threaten to fall more often, then we may be able to say--and this time with more certainty than ever--that the torch of tomorrow's theater lay ever firmer in the grasp of Drama Department, a group who casts illuminating light after illuminating light on so many forgotten American gems.